Three years ago, The New York Times released an article discussing the rise of far-right online political commentators (dubbed the “net right”) in Japanese society. It argued that their ultra-nationalistic and racist perspectives stemmed from “men who felt disenfranchised in their own society,” who wanted to “[vent] frustration, both about Japan’s diminished stature and in their own personal economic difficulties.” Although these xenophobic attitudes can be seen parallel to this country’s own racialism (that has likewise worsened over the past few years) the 2010’s have also seen the rise of South Korea’s own group of radical online conservatives with quite a different agenda.
The inception of the Korean Internet right, like that of their Japanese counterparts, was around fringe web communities and forums such as “DC Inside” (more specifically, particular boards within it) and “Ilbe.” Though these websites have existed for quite some time, it is only during the last two or three years that they have fleshed out their political identities and have rapidly gained a foothold in public consciousness, expanding their membership significantly in the process. With the apparent increase in numbers, they have become increasingly vocal and bold about their political viewpoints to the point that last year, a senior Ilbe member, Gangyul, even staged an online debate with liberal commentator and academic Jin Joong-kwon.
Though the newfound “activists” closely resemble their equivalents in Japan with their shrill tirades against certain elements in society, their vitriol is more broad-brushed than simple racism. That is to say, their diatribes encompass – in the words of one journalist – “an extremely broad variety of topics from antifeminism and outright misogyny to a strong regional disdain and hatred of liberal agitators.” All this has attracted criticism from mainstream circles. A left-leaning magazine, the Hankyoreh21, commented that Ilbe posts “reeked of neo-Nazism” and that such websites “may herald the due arrival of fascist elements akin to the French National Front.” This perception is echoed in the popular label “Ilbe-choong” (loosely, Ilbe bug or worm) applied to this group.
To be sure, these “worms” have done little to improve their reputation. Their often vulgar humor ranges from making banal jabs at liberal politicians to deriding democratization and openly pressing for a purge of “commies,” while idealizing South Korea’s bloody authoritarian past. A closer examination also reveals lewd posts poking fun at crimes such as rape, and satire that makes light of the recently deceased. The unifying aspect of all Ilbe posts and attitudes indeed seems to be a pervasive contempt for morality in general.
Yet other than that, these self-declared political commentators have hardly any consistent ideological principles. Most of their analysis of current affairs centers on damaging the credibility of “communist” elements (i.e. leftist politicians, political parties, and supporters) while not offering much of alternative policies. Even their lionization of certain authoritarian and conservative figures stems from the backlash against typical mainstream (liberal) beliefs on their age demographic rather than their respect for particular qualities. As of now, online groups such as Ilbe seem to be more a ragtag amalgamation of disgruntled political and ethical reactionaries than any coherent fascist initiative.
Yet, the reason for this proliferation of conservative elements among younger Koreans seems not to be (as many have made out) simply the decadence of personal values. On the contrary, similar to the Japanese example, the rise of the right among South Korea’s younger generation may be symptomatic of a wider societal gridlock. In this current climate, people are increasingly being subjected to a zero sum competition amongst themselves for jobs and prestige. Despite this country’s historic democratization and its moralizing politicians preaching equity and integrity, South Korea’s often corrupt socioeconomic ladder only seems to be getting steeper. As with the Japanese net right, for the many facing “their own […] difficulties,” it is natural to “[feel] disenfranchised in their own society.” Where the irrelevance of political principles is painfully evident and morality is utterly inconsequential, perhaps Ilbe and its “worms” are more accurate reflections of this culture than most people would like to admit.